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The Cult of Personality

A picture might be worth a thousand words —but what about hundreds of thousands of votes? Mathew Brady’s Cooper Union photograph was, according to many people around Abraham Lincoln in 1860-61 and the president himself. The first meeting  between Lincoln and Brady may have seemed relatively inconsequential at the time, and if we are to believe the legend, even random. But 20/20 hindsight allows us to see it as a meeting of two great American minds—one a master of the relatively new medium of photography, the other a master of the very old media of politics, writing and speechmaking. As Harold Holzer relates in his illuminating look at what became the Cooper Union phenomenon, the power of those two minds combined on February 27, 1860, to send a ripple through the presidential campaign that quickly grew into the mighty wave which carried Lincoln all the way to the White House. On that day, he sat for the portrait and delivered the speech that he had always believed made him president.

Contemplating the full effect of the Cooper Union photograph and speech is in some ways familiar to the 21st-century mind, but in other ways surprising. Certainly the power of public relations will be familiar to the modern observer, but what may be surprising to some is that 19th-century politicians were every bit as aware of it, and every bit as savvy about how to use it to their advantage long before the information age. Lincoln was a master politician not only because of his leadership and policymaking skills, but also his acuity, charisma and ability to manipulate the people and the powers around him. The legend of Abraham Lincoln the humble and spontaneous genius is an enduring one that holds some degree of truth—but it isn’t the whole truth. The very creation of that legend, which was in many ways a premeditated and actively cultivated persona, is proof positive of Lincoln’s meticulous attention to image, perception and public sentiment. This would serve him well both in and on the way to the White House.

George McClellan, who would be Lincoln’s opponent in more ways than one from 1862-64, was also keenly aware of the power of image—so much so that one of the traditional knocks on him is that he was more consumed with looking the part of a combat general than he was with fulfilling it. McClellan’s photographs are a fascinating study in their own right. It is virtually impossible to find him with a hair out of place, a button unpolished and a look on his face that didn’t reflect his belief that he was the sharpest guy in the room.

McClellan’s posturing worked to some extent. He did manage to win the support of many of his men, and infuse a battered and disorganized army with order, discipline and a sense of pride that would ultimately bear fruit—though not in time to save his job. McClellan’s combat career wouldn’t survive 1862, and his popularity with the troops wouldn’t entirely survive 1864. Frank Williams’ eye-opening look at Lincoln’s second victory shows that Union soldiers—particularly the rank and file—overwhelmingly backed the president over the formerly popular commander, and that ultimately it was the self-effacing, yarn-spinning country lawyer who won the battle of image over the spit-shined and arrogant urbanite.

Lincoln and McClellan were the Civil War’s original odd couple, yet both wielded considerable power and influence, and both endured harsh criticism and scrutiny, often from one another. One bore that burden and helped guide America through its darkest hour, stamping his name prominently in the world’s history in the process; the other grew all too accustomed to the taste of defeat and faded into the background. Both men appreciated the incredible potency of image and public sentiment, but only one of them fully understood that image may install you, but ultimately it is your actions that sustain you.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here